Debra Got It Exactly Right
Speaking of boys and reading, she said: "they want magazines/books/people/activities that will help them become respected and good at something." That one phrase contains a book’s worth of insight. First, it is so obvious and clear. Who wouldn’t want that? And yet it is not "pleasure reading" as usually defined. In fact, it is much closer to assigned reading. Because their goal is not an interior journey, an escape, a trip inside someone else’s head. No, their goal is to gain respect from others through acquiring skills. Reading is a tool of self-improvement — with the changes in the self measured in terms of the approval and admiration of your peers. Reading is precisely a tool.
Debra’s boys are not good students — they are in the club precisely because they are behind, in cases far behind, their age cohort. That makes respect all the more important to them. They are not asking for low lexile "hi-lo" books that they can manage to decode. Rather they want a ladder, they want a boost, so that they can do better, and thus feel better. In effect when they see reading material they are asking — what are you going to do for me? They want a book to be a barbell, a chin up bar, the basket you shoot at for hours, a pitching machine, a coach who runs a really tough practice that leaves your legs aching — and you knowing that you are in better shape than any other team.
Speaking very broadly, I think that girls who are the same age as Debra’s boys are already good at something, and earn respect for it: they are good at reading. Just the other day my friend Kathi Appelt came to read her award-winning novel The Underneath at our local library. One after another pairs of mothers and daughters came up to talk about how they are reading the book together — enjoying the intimacy of the shared experience. The girls looked bright and pleased to be reading a challenging book, the mothers had a particular glow — half pride at their daughters and half a girls-together-pleasure in having a special thing to share. The mothers, I sensed, liked being a bit younger themselves, being "girlish" for that hour they spend reading with their daughters — so the maternal pride is mixed with a chance to step away from being an adult and just enjoy togetherness.
For the girls, reading itself is their accomplishment, and the circle of respect and admiration begins with a mom very close by and easily expands to other appreciative women in school, at the library, and at their friends’ homes. For Debra’s boys, reading makes other accomplishments possible, and the audience is peers and a much more scattered and distant circle of male mentors — a sense of masculinity as against the embrace of time with a mom.
The problem is that that female circle is mapped on to school and so we lose track of why boys would want to read in the first place, and call them bad readers. As I said, there is a book’s worth of insight to be found in that one phrase.